California winds bring fire threat, possible power outages

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2020 file photo, residents watch as the Blue Ridge Fire burns above blacked-out homes in Chino Hills, Calif. Southern California utilities say they may cut power to more than 300,000 customers this week as dry, gusty weather raises the threat of wildfire danger. The National Weather Service is issuing red flag warnings of extreme fire danger over much of the region because of dry vegetation, low humidity and gusty Santa Ana winds. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Californians hoping December would finally usher in wetter weather after a disastrous fire season were instead bracing Wednesday for another round of dry winds that raised the threat of wildfire danger and widespread power shutoffs.

Utilities in the southern part of the state warned they may cut electricity to more than 350,000 customers as a precaution during the windy period expected to last into the weekend.

Southern California Edison had cut off power to about 15,000 customers by Wednesday night and warned that it was considering interrupting power to well over a quarter of a million customers in seven counties.

That would be about 5% of the utility’s 5 million customers and would affect the counties of Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Tulare and Ventura.

San Diego Gas & Electric had cut the electricity to about 10,600 customers by Wednesday night and warned that some 84,500 others could see power shutoffs lasting for days. They could affect some inland and coastal communities and “fire- and wind-prone backcountry communities” in an area at high risk of fires, the utility said on its website.

“We recognize losing power is disruptive, and we sincerely thank our customers for their patience and understanding,” the utility said.

The National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings of extreme fire danger through Saturday, especially for mountains and canyons, because of dry, gusty Santa Ana winds, low humidity and parched vegetation.

“Overnight and in the early morning hours the winds are really going to get going,” said meteorologist Adam Roser with the weather service in San Diego. Gusts could top 75 mph (121 kph) in some areas and widespread winds nearing 50 mph (80 kph) are possible across the region, he said.

Southern California’s Santa Ana winds blow from the interior toward the coast and often bring powerful gusts, especially below mountain passes and canyons. Though most prevalent in October and November, the winds are not uncommon in early December, Roser said.

Northern California, which has seen more precipitation this fall but not much recently, was expecting dry, windy weather starting this weekend.

California already has experienced its worst-ever year for wildfires. They have scorched more than 6,500 square miles (16,835 square kilometers), a total larger than the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. At least 31 people have been killed and 10,500 homes and other structures damaged or destroyed.

The latest fire threat comes as much of California plunges deeper into drought. Virtually all of Northern California is in severe or extreme drought while nearly all of Southern California is abnormally dry or worse.

“Some years there’s some rain that tamps down the fire season. But not yet this year,” Roser said, adding that no precipitation is expected for Southern California for at least the next week and a half.

Southern California Edison’s power shutoffs were prompted by concerns that winds will bring down tree branches that could hit electrical equipment or knock loose lines and spark wildfires in tinder-dry brush.

Last week, the utility cut power to more than 16,000 customers because of Santa Ana winds and fire danger. Edison has said that its equipment likely sparked a raging wildfire that critically injured two firefighters and destroyed five homes in October.